She is studying consumer acceptance in the field of traditional food at Nofima Mat in Ås. The doctorate studies are part of the big European research project TrueFood. The aim of TrueFood is to determine consumers' perception of, expectations of and attitudes to traditional food and what kind of innovations in such products they will accept. This is vital information for the food producers who are working on developing new, healthier options.
What is traditional food?
The European attitude to traditional food could be summed up as "good, old habits" - with the accent on "good". After asking 5,000 consumers the definition is clear.
- is eaten frequently
- or is associated with special celebrations or seasons
- is passed on from one generation to the next
- is prepared in a special way, in accordance with gastronomic heritage
- is distinguished and renowned for its sensory qualities
- is associated with a particular area, region or country
What all the countries have in common is an unusually positive attitude to traditional food and the fact that this type of food is showing a positive trend. Quality is taken for granted and many people accept - expect even - to pay a higher price. On an image scale of 1 to 7, traditional food scores 5.71 in Norway, which is about the European average. The decisive factors for this good image are the perception of uniformly good quality, good and distinctive flavours, food safety, good nutritional value, that the food has been produced in an environmentally friendly way and that it contributes to the local and regional economy.
In spite of traditional food's good image, food producers in Europe are trying to make traditional food more healthy. They must take fat and salt out of the old recipes, something consumers can find difficult to swallow. "Innovation and traditional food are opposite concepts. They are difficult to discuss with the consumer," says Valérie Lengard.
For change read communication
For example, at Nofima Mat we have tried to present Omega-3 cheese to a group of consumers. They were very doubtful about the idea, probably because many associate Omega-3 with fish. This is something the researchers will be working on, partly by giving the consumers information about the source of extra unsaturated fat (feed with more grass), explains Margrethe Hersleth, who is a consumer researcher at Nofima Mat and heads consumer research in the TrueFood project. Hersleth has also introduced consumers to low fat cheese. Here the key is information. "To get consumers to accept low fat cheese, you must inform them about the reasons behind the fat reduction," she says. When changes are made without affecting the taste, then information is not necessarily so critical.
For change read benefits
Changes to traditional food must bring benefits for the consumer, such as better health or better availability. You wouldn't normally expect ready-made Christmas dinners to be accepted at all, but they have become a popular sales line in the supermarkets.
"Convenience changes make traditional food more available. The Fjordland dinners have a very traditional image, so people want them," believes Margrethe Hersleth.
TrueFood is working on change in traditional food from a health or safety viewpoint. Trials are going on at Nofima Mat, for example, to achieve good smoked salmon with less salt. Next door at UMB (the Norwegian University of Life Sciences) they are studying how changing the feed given to cattle can produce more of the healthy fatty acids in milk.
When food is no longer traditional
Those who eat a lot of traditional foods are open to new ingredients, new forms, new colours and textures. They want to see more variety. But they don't want changes to be too drastic. Putting cranberries in smoked salmon might not be a recipe for success. "If you make too much change, it isn't traditional food any more, it's a completely new product," concludes Margrethe Hersleth.
Contact: Valérie Lengard
Christmas means traditional food